COVID-19 and the double-edged sword of trust

COVID-19 and the double-edged sword of trust

Recent research on the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the correlation between trust and compliance with outbreak containment measures is a lot more complex than previously thought. These findings present new challenges to policy makers, who may have to think outside of the box when crisis hits.

In times of societal crisis, a trusting population has always been known to be a resource. A trusting population is more compliant, more resilient, happier, and less susceptible to misinformation. Yet, in a surprising turn of events, research into trust during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven the old adage that too much of a good thing can be bad: not only has high trust been shown to correlate with higher mortality rates and lower levels of compliance with outbreak containment measures, but this tendency seems to relate to both social trust and political trust .

Too much of a good thing

So, why are we seeing this correlation, when trust has previously been shown to have such a positive impact on crisis management? One possible reason seems to be overconfidence. One study found that people with high social trust tend to perceive the risk of COVID-19 as less severe than those with less trust toward others, while another studyfound that people with high confidence in the authorities tended to assume that the authorities were simply on top of things. Specifically, the latter study dealt with the case of the high-trust country of Singapore: despite the Singaporean strategy being the poster-child for good crisis communications, staying transparent and realistic surrounding the risk of COVID-19 and maintaining an attitude of ‘defensive pessimism’ (i.e. celebrating no victories prematurely), risk perception in the population was consistently low throughout the initial stage of the outbreak. In fact, participants in the study cited the transparency and communicativeness of the government as reasons for a low perceived risk, which means that the competent communications strategy of the government may have had a halo effect on the perceived competency of their crisis management overall.

Another potential explanation for the dark side of trust may be found in ingroup/outgroup effects. According to a recent study on the correlation between interpersonal value and risk-avoidant behavior during the COVID-19 crisis, the more valued the interactive partner is – romantic partners are more valued than friends, friends more than acquaintances, and strangers deemed “honest and agreeable” more than strangers deemed “dishonest and disagreeable” – the less attention to risk-averse behavior is given. The authors posit that this tradeoff between social bonds and risk-averse behavior may be a product of ingroup/outgroup distinctions: there is some evidence that we may perceive other people as less infectious if they are familiar to us, or if they possess ingroup signifiers, e.g. skin color. This effect may, in turn, be exacerbated by behavioral contagion, which can squander attempts at risk-averse behavior in interactions among ingroup members – being the stick in the mud is a lot more cumbersome than being the life of the party, after all.

Is it time to think out of the box?

Naturally, given the many advantages of trust in general , instilling distrust in the population in the noble attempt of increasing compliance during a crisis would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Nevertheless, these results indicate that trust is not the unambiguous resource we thought it to be. Though research has found people to be generally pro-social and rational during a crisis , expecting them to manage their own subconscious processes under unfamiliar circumstances is probably a tall order, and it may even be time to reconsider whether a commitment to trust-based recommendatory policy is the most effective strategy when seeking to contain a crisis. No matter how policy makers of high-trust countries choose to tackle this new knowledge, it seems that a reexamination of crisis management blind spots is in order.


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